Keep Projects Moving Forward As A Leader: An Interview With Leadership Expert Richard Rierson


Richard Rierson’s leadership perspective is shaped by a number of influences including leading lessons in the U.S. Marines Corps, flying for American Airlines and as a leader at a multi-billion dollar global engineering company. Through those experiences and his own studies, Richard has developed a compelling leadership vision that empowers people and achieves results.

In today’s interview, Rierson shares his perspective on leadership and how project managers can become more effective leaders. You will also learn how to make a positive impression as a new leader, leadership mistakes to avoid and Richard’s recommendations for leadership books.

1. How did you get started in leadership?

As I came up through the U.S. Marine Corps, I learned a number of important leadership principles. That experience taught me to empower people closest to the problem, help the people who report to me and stay calm under pressure. The organization emphasizes that everyone is a leader – a key lesson that I carried forward.

When I moved into the civilian world, I experienced a key leadership moment when I held a position as a shipping supervisor. When I walked into the warehouse, it was like walking through the set of Sons of Anarchy and I didn’t feel like I fit in. Connecting with my staff was a challenge. However, I asked a key question, “What is it you need?” In resposne, a forklift operator asked for some dry erase boards so better organize shipments. I made that happen and that effort improved my credibility with the team. I immediately understood that my staff knew their problems up close and it was my responsibility to support him.

As a leader, I have learned that I don’t need to have all the answers. I can ask for input and suggestions for my team and then work to support them.

2. What mistakes do you see new leaders make?

Assuming your position, credentials or experience are enough to be a leader is the classic mistake I see. In the case of project managers, it is assumed that you have project management knowledge and/or that you have earned the PMP certification. Spending a lot of time talking about yourself and bragging about your accomplishments is usually not effective.

3. How can project managers become better leaders from day one on a new project?

I have worked closely with project managers for years. I encourage project managers to take the view “I am accountable and responsible for the project.” Even if you are operating in a matrix environment, that attitude is helpful. With that mindset, you are focused on solving problems. In addition, I encourage project managers to always ask themselves the question, “How can I remove obstacles?” from the rest of the team.

With these principles in hand, the fact that a project manager may have limited formal authority is less important.

4. How can project managers add value to people on their teams?

I worked on a project to certify aircraft that involved over a dozen different functions. Two groups – engineering and flight operations – often had conflict because they approached the work from a different perspective. The engineers are the experts who write tests. The flight crew then has the responsibility to test the aircraft in the world. The engineers are often focused on achieving perfection while flight crews focus on a 75% or 80% solution.

The project manager in that context heard the comments and perspectives from the various teams. In this context, a key way to add value is to focus everyone on the question, “What is the outcome we are working to produce?” That question – rather than project management metrics and plans – often helps refocus the team and move everyone toward success.

5. For leaders interested in seeking a mentor, what is the best way to start that relationship?

At first, you start by simply asking the question of leaders you admire and want to learn from. I recommend starting the relationship by asking yourself, “How can I add value? What can I do for them?” Over time, you will learn more about their approach to leadership. To deepen the relationship, become a master of asking good questions.

[Editor’s Note: In your first email to a potential mentor, show that you have done some research on them. In the past, I have searched Linkedin for managers that have won a specific award. I can then reference that award and ask how they won it in my first email to them.]

6. What leadership books do you recommend?

There are a few books that have been valuable to me. Here are a few of the books I recommend and why:

  • The Compound Effect By Darren Hardy. This book helped me to understand the value of making daily progress and improvement in my leadership. I recently interviewed Darren Hardy on the podcast and learned a lot from him.

[Editor’s Note: If you would like to learn more about Richard Rierson’s leadership philosophy, you can receive a copy of Leadership Guide when you subscribe to his email newsletter.]

7. For readers interested to know more about you and your work, what is the best place to go?

I host the Dose of Leadership podcast where I have interviewed over 200 leaders in fields such as the military, business and other fields. For information on my coaching and speaking, you can visit

Here are a few podcasts that may be particularly interesting to project managers:


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